Tabea Blumenschein in 1979's Ticket of No Return. Courtesy of Metrograph 

Ulrike Ottinger's House of Fucked-Up Fantasy

The cult filmmaker chats with GARAGE in anticipation of her Metrograph retrospective.

by Colleen Kelsey
Aug 28 2020, 9:30am

Tabea Blumenschein in 1979's Ticket of No Return. Courtesy of Metrograph 

“She purchased a ticket of no return to Berlin-Tegel. She wanted to forget her past, or rather to abandon it like a condemned house. She wanted to concentrate all her energies on one thing, something all her own.”

The script for Ulrike Ottinger’s 1979 film Ticket of No Return begins with a woman hurtling into the void. A beautiful socialite, she lands in the city to do one thing—drink, sloshing between hotel rooms, casinos, coffeehouses, the bombed out, craterous streets. A trio of morality police follow her every move. Some of her exploits make the papers. The time, the era, seems uncertain—a parallel future. The clothes are ravishing, but edged in dystopia. It’s a different place, but there are still punks. And Nina Hagen and Martin Kippenberger.

Ottinger started making moves in the ’70s, writing, directing, and doing her own camerawork. She’d spent most of the ’60s in Paris as a painter and photographer, then returned to Germany, eventually moving to West Berlin, in the throes of chaos and creative rebirth. Her films are the best kind of long trip—dilating into hyper-stylized fever dreams, satirizing power and gender structures and following characters (many of them actors pulled from the city’s nightlife and wild creative class) on epic journeys—even just within their own psychologies.

Take, for example, Madame X: An Absolute Ruler (1977), Ottinger’s earth-scorching, high-camp lesbian pirate saga, where a leather-clad dominatrix pirate queen (Tabea Blumenschein, her partner at the time and frequent collaborator) leads a group of women (including Yvonner Rainer as an artist, in one scene careening on roller skates)  out of domesticity and onto a murderous sea voyage. Ottinger wields the benevolent power of Chaotic Good: she tricked out Virginia Woolf’s time-traveling odyssey in Freak Orlando (1981), and put Veruschka in drag to play a Benz-chauffered Dorian Gray in The Image of Dorian Grey in the Yellow Press (1984), an extremely loose and satisfying interpretation of the original text.

Ottinger has also directed operas and plays, all while continuing to make both features and documentaries. Last year, Bridget Donahue showed a selection of her photographs and flat works in New York; she’s also exhibited at Documenta and David Zwirner. Starting today, Metrograph will begin a retrospective of her films, shown via their digital platform Metrograph Live Screenings and running through October. Back in March, I Skyped Ottinger, 78, who called in from London.

Veruschka in 1984's "The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press." Courtesy of Metrograph

You worked with painting, with photography, and then segued over to motion. What was that first impulse to start making films?
In Germany, in the ’50s, where I grew up, the culture was so run down by the Nazis. There were some exceptions, of course, but in general, you couldn’t see interesting things. I went to Paris when I was 20. I went as an artist, as a painter. Then I went to the cinémathèque, and there I discovered cinema. I went three times a week to see things. Not only Nouvelle Vague—I could also see the American independents, things from all continents, from all cultures. These scenes went into my paintings. It was successive, I got more and more interested. Finally I saw, this is what I want to do. You can do everything—you have the music, you have text, you have image.

What was it like going back to Germany, and then on to Berlin, after Paris? 
I was eight years in Paris. After ’68, things had become, in some parts, very ideological, and very narrow-minded. You could only speak in certain circles with these stereotypes, you could only speak in slogans. And it was never my way. A lot of people went very depressive, because a lot of them had enormous hope in this revolutionary movement, and it was a kind of fantasy. They were all very young. There were even friends of mine who killed themselves. I had the feeling, I had to do something else. So I went back to my hometown, Konstanz, to reflect on my work and what I wanted to do in the future.

I founded a little cultural center, this Film Club, at the university in Konstanz. I made a book shop and gallery, this music shop. And I started to do films, in a very simple way, with wonderful friends of mine. I wanted to do the camera by myself, do the framing and the images. This is very important to me. So, as an autodidact I learned the camera. Then I decided to go to Berlin because some of my friends made Happenings there. So I’d done the documentation of the Happening—which was called _Berlinfever_—and I found it really interesting. At that time, this was a city where you could see German history. There was all this black—what do you call it—black, from the fire…

On the façades...on the coffee houses. You could also see it in the faces of the people. I couldn’t believe that Berlin, at that time, this was Germany. I knew only Western Germany, these nice cities, very proper. For film, you are looking for places, so I could do the mise-en-scène. So I walked around as much as I could and took photos, and then I made films in these locations. They are called the Berlin Trilogy, three films—Ticket of No Return, the portrait of the woman drinker who is strolling around Berlin through all the neighborhoods; Freak Orlando is mostly in these unbelievable rotten industrial landscapes; and then you have Dorian Gray, which I made a lot in the wonderful parks and gardens from the time of the kings, from the 18th, 19th century.

Ulrike Ottinger. Courtesy of Metrograph

Especially in Freak Orlando, in “Freak City,” the environment is so singularly dystopian and surreal. How much was already standing because of the current state of Berlin and how much was you own invention?
The locations are real. But a lot of Berliners told me, “I have never seen Berlin like you are seeing Berlin.” A lot of places they didn’t know. But this is because I walked around, I’m a flaneur. Berlin needed to have all these stocks of coal, of food, of everything. So this coal is, in Freak Orlando, prominent, of course. Then because, from these coals hills, by wind, a lot of dust was coming through the city. So they covered it with this green plastic. It looked like a crystal.

Madame X— I found it playful and honestly hilarious—but it was considered very transgressive when it came out. How did the women’s movement affect you, your approach to your work, and the film? Maybe we can start there. 
The inspiration came because when I came back from Paris, a lot of my former friends had another language—as girls. I was really amazed at how the German language had changed, by all kinds of political movements, and also feminism. I found it very interesting. A lot of my friends, at the time when I went to Paris, they all wanted to get married and have children. When I went back, most of them were already separated from their husbands and had another life. I talked with them about all this. I had met all these interesting [women]. Claudia Skoda, a great designer. Then I met a young woman who was completely fascinated by this psychedelic world of space. So I wrote things around them. Then there was a very famous prostitute from Zurich. Werner Schroeter, the German filmmaker, had her in his film. I met her and I met the photo model, Blow-Up.

As Madame X, I had Tabea Blumenschein, who was at that time my friend, my partner. A beautiful woman. She was not in a classical way an actress, but what she could do with in silent films. In different gestures, she looked like the cruel Madame X, the pirate queen, then she looked like the secretary with glasses. She was fantastic. And then in addition she was the figurehead of the ship, where she was like a comical puppet. So it was the doppelgänger. Yvonne Rainier [and I] were very good friends in Berlin. So I asked her, “Would you like to play the artist?” We didn’t have much money, just 80,000 German marks at that time, which was not much. So I went to the Lake of Konstanz, because for lack of money I couldn’t do it in the China Sea. But it was so much better in an artistic way.

A scene from "Freak Orlando." Courtesy of Metrograph.

How did you end up casting Veruschka in Dorian Gray?
I had made a theatre play in Europe. I didn’t only want to work with big actors from the state theatre, I wanted to add some other elements. I asked Veruschka to play d’Annuzio [in Clara S., which premiered at the Staatstheater Stuttgart in 1983]. This was great because Veruschka was coming from a noble family, she imitated people she knew sometimes before when we met—I was laughing about it. Then we were looking for Dorian Gray for the film Dorian Gray. We were looking for somebody, a man or woman, a little androgynous. Veruschka has a fantastic body language. You would know from her famous photos, she has these endless legs. You never know where they are ending. And she has these little bit stiff, boyish movements. Great for this role, ja? So I asked her and she went, “Ah, fantastic, I would love to do it.” Then we were sitting before the mirror and I said, “You know, you have to cut your hair.” At the time she had her hair long, and she said, “I think you are right. Cut it!!”

I also wanted to talk a bit about referential frameworks, literature, and genre. Dorian Gray and Orlando, for example, were references for you. National Geographic in Joan of Arc of Mongolia. What is it about these pre-exisiting narratives that have felt like a space for you?
I loved to read my whole youth but…it was an interesting starting point. Of course I was very inspired by Orlando, Dorian Gray—to go from these names, and also to go from genres in cinema, and to develop other things out of this. The expectations of the genre, I played with this. Of course I love the books of Virginia Woolf, and I love Dorian Gray, you know, but these were starting points. With the name, it became something interesting. People immediately will imagine it as something. It’s also a way to play with you imagination, of the spectator, if you use these names. Also for myself if I’m using these names, it goes in my fantasy and I develop something out of this.

A scene from "Joan of Arc of Mongolia." Courtesy of Metrograph.

Using these works of literature, fantasy comes from it, but these characters also deal with social issues or issues of gender rooted in reality.
Of course. Fantasy is part of our reality, a big part, even. You know, if you work in this way, I think sometimes you come closer to reality than with a straightforward, realistic film. You are always surprised by something.

Ulrike Ottinger